V. Speaking Evil: Language andAction in Macbeth
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V. Speaking Evil: Language and Action in Macbeth ONE OF THE THINGS our analysis of King Lear has indicated is that the distinctive verbal texture of a role should be a clue to distinctive actions on the part of the performer. In this essay I want toapproach Macbeth—and particularly itspower to involve us in the mental life of its hero—by looking closely at Macbeth'slanguage and the kindof acting effortit requires. To begin with a very noticeable stylistic feature, Macbeth's speeches, like those of Hamlet and Lear, frequently present the actor with series of words that are strikingly similar— words which may or may not be parallel in sense, but which are rendered insistently parallel by devices of style. Negoti­ ating these sequences successfully is an important recurring action in the play. It is not too much to say that it forms part of the characterization of Macbeth, for it markedly determines the way his character must be received. In Macbeth, the typical organization of parallel elements is very different from Hamlet's "Bloody, bawdy, ... lecherous, treacherous, kindless villain!" or "Tempest, torrent, and whirlwind," or Lear's "Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confu­ sion!" or "Howl, howl, howl,howl!" Let mestart with a very familiar example: This supernatural soliciting Cannot be ill, cannot be good. (I, iii, 130-31) What is therelation between supernaturaland soliciting? First, the sound suggests a parallelism which the sense resists—and indeed the sound resists it too, even as it suggests it. The Macbeth congruence of the two words is as uneasy as it is emphatic— since all the repeated elements—the s's, the l's, the n's and t's, the swift polysyllables—are tangled by the differentia, the new sounds and altered rhythm. It has the effect of a tonguetwister . And the interplayof meanings suggested by the words reinforces the impression of movement into a tangle, a dis­ turbing density, as does the content of the whole speech. So­ licit, in its Elizabethan meanings, is a word of manifold sug­ gestion, linking all kinds of persuasion—evil, neutral, and good; rhetorical, sexual, sympathetic, and manipulative.1 Supernatural only heightens the sense of doubt and attraction implicit in the word it modifies. And the speech—expressing Macbeth's rapt,doubting, fascinated interest in theapparition he has just seen—continues through a sequence of similar entanglings. Balancesare set up whichare quickly undermined by unassimilated residues of sound and sense, and this makes the movement from word A to word A' (and sometimes A") neither one of opposition nor simple accumulation, but of a twisting and darkening, a thickening in which the speech thrusts forward intolittle thicketsof sound and into reflectionswhich don't allow the speculative movement to exit, ending literally in a smothering negation: My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man, That function is smothered in surmise, And nothing is, but what is not.1 (I, iii, 139-42.) We may note similar effects elsewhere, as in: If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly. If th'assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch, With his surcease, success . .. (I, vii, 1-4) What is the relation between assassination and consequence, between surcease and success? Both in sound and sense, they smother each other. The speech moves quickly and nervously, Macbeth indeed jumpily, which probably dictates Shakespeare's choice of "jump" for "risk." But the jump here is miles from the swift movement of Othello's Like to the Pontic Sea Whose icy current and compulsive course Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on To the Propontic and the Hellespont, Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love, Till that a capable and wide revenge Swallow them up.3 (Ill, iii, 450-57) In the speech just quoted, the relation of the similar parts allows us to feel word A progressing to A', to feel A' as the release, the resolution, say, of the chord struck by A. In Macbeth 's speech, the jumper from A finds himself entangled in A'. Success becomes a tongue-twisting pun on surcease·, we are explicitly invited to think of assassination as throwing a net around consequence, and indeed the effect is reinforced by trammel and catch, emphatically related to each other and to the paired words they link. We feel assassination and con­ sequence, surcease and success, snatching...